Is Morality Objective?

David Hume

When speaking of the possibility of an objective morality, most people want to be able to say that certain practices are right or wrong regardless of the mere opinion of one individual or another.

Many people think that, without god, we are bound to moral relativism, in that there is no objective moral standard by which all actions can be judged, and morality is therefore simply a matter of cultural convention, or individual opinion.

But, as others like Sam Harris have pointed out, if we think more deeply about what we mean by words like “good” and “bad”, we can form a basis for objective morality with science, rather than through god or religion.

What we must realise is that when we are using words like “good” and “bad”, we are necessarily talking about the well-being of conscious creatures. That is, good and bad are only “good” and “bad” insofar as they can be experienced as such by conscious creatures. To presuppose otherwise is to presuppose some external arbiter of moral goodness and badness, outside the system of conscious experience, that gets to authoritatively decide what “good” and “bad” mean. Needless to say, such presuppositions carry as much weight as the presupposition that god, the un-actualised actualiser, created the universe.

The goodness or badness of all moral values such as justice, equality, and charity, therefore reduces down to the goodness or badness of their affect on the conscious experience of conscious minds.

Goodness here, which Harris calls well-being, is an inherent feature of subjective experience. Something is good (subjectively) insofar as it we actually prefer how it colours our subjective experience.

To use the term “subjective” here isn’t necessarily to say that whichever particular circumstances are good — whichever circumstances improve our subjective experience — is a matter of mere opinion, since we can be wrong about what will actually bring about the greatest level of our own well-being. Instead, it is just to say that good and bad can only be made sense of through their relation to the actual experience of conscious creatures, and that that experience is ultimately experienced subjectively. That is, what is good for me is whatever improves my subjective experience.

As such, moral propositions are objectively good insofar as they improve the subjective experience of all conscious creatures. For example, it is objectively good for all humans not to burn in fire for eternity, since all humans innately experience the feeling of burning in fire for eternity as bad. If in some unrealistic, hypothetical scenario, some person happens to experience the feeling of burning in fire positively, such that they innately experience pleasure from it, then we can amend the statement to say it is objectively good for all humans except this one individual not to burn in fire for eternity.

Nevertheless, objective moral statements about certain propositions can in principle be made based upon how their consequences relate to the well-being of conscious creatures. If we juxtapose the two ends of the spectrum — a world in which everyone suffers the worst possible misery for eternity, and a world in which everyone experiences the greatest possible well-being for eternity — it’s easy to see that there are potentially infinite worlds in-between: some better than others, and many equal. This is what Harris calls The Moral Landscape.

So, how can we say that certain cultural practices are morally wrong in the objective sense? They are wrong insofar as they reduce the well-being of (one or more) conscious creatures. Whether such cultures know it or not, there are surely other ways to live in which the well-being of all conscious creatures within that culture is improved, and so the right thing to do — the morally good thing to do — is to move towards such ways of life.

What about zero-sum contests, wherein the well-being of one individual comes at the expense of the well-being of another? Again, there are surely worlds in which the well-being of both individuals can be improved relative to the zero-sum contest, and therefore objectively better worlds (since they are subjectively better for everyone involved).

What if there are actually no worlds in which the well-being of all conscious creatures is simultaneously maximised? For example, perhaps in world A the well-being of individual A is maximised while that of individual B is sub-optimal, whereas in world B the well-being of individual B is maximised while that of individual A is sub-optimal.

In this case, the “best” world — the most morally “good” world — is truly subjective, and depends on who you ask. Nevertheless, there is still a spectrum of objectively better and worse worlds between the two extremes of The Moral Landscape.

The Is-Ought Distinction

Accredited to David Hume, the is-ought distinction suggests that there is no description of the way the world is that can tell us how we ought to live. That is, descriptive facts about the universe can’t be translated into propositional “should” statements. In other words, before you can say what you should do, you must first define a goal, such that actions can then be evaluated as to whether or not they help you achieve that goal, and whether or not you should therefore enact them. However, since there is apparently no objective goal as a descriptive fact of nature, there are no “should” statements either.

The problem with this is that we do actually have an innate goal as a fundamental part of our being of conscious creatures: we each inherently want to avoid our own suffering and promote our own well-being. This is a fact about conscious experience — about the universe — that is as fundamental as any other fact out there. As such, our “oughts” are built in to each of us: what we “ought” to do by nature is to maximise our own well-being.

The persistence of this distinction seems to rest heavily on the religious baggage attached to the word “ought”. It seems to be presupposed that “ought” can only be dictated by an ultimate authority who gives us our ultimate goal(s) — goals that are more important than all others — and who we must all obey, since only then can certain actions objectively be more imperative than all others. But to use the word “ought” in this way is to be laboured by religious language. Again, this usage of the word “ought” hides an implicit presupposition (of an ultimate authority) based upon religious ideology. The more fundamental truth is that of our conscious experience, and that our conscious experience entails certain innate goals that dictate what we mean by “ought”.

So, if what we ought to do is to maximise our own well-being, why ought we care about others? Well, we shouldn’t, necessarily, unless we do in fact care about others and unless therefore our own well-being actually depends upon the well-being of others.

Doesn’t this again bind us to moral relativism? Again, there are surely worlds in which the well-being of each of us is improved, and all of our “oughts” align. These worlds are objectively better than worlds in which the well-being of each of us is diminished, and this is the basis for an objective morality.

Can Science Determine Moral Truths?

Since the moral goodness and badness of certain actions depends upon the effect of their consequences on the well-being of conscious creatures, science can in principle discover which actions are morally good, and which actions are morally bad, since there are in principle scientific facts to be known about the consequences of certain actions, and how those consequences affect conscious experience.

Boundaries around scientific disciplines are largely conventional, but the study of how certain consequences affect conscious experience will largely fall into the purview of psychology; the study of how certain actions produce those consequences is more open-ended and cross-disciplinary.

Whether or not all the relevant facts can ever be known is besides the point; if there are facts to be known, then we can in principle discover them, and science is our best attempt at discovering empirical truths.

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